The difference between a Physiotherapist and an Exercise Physiologist

March 31, 2021

At SportsCare and Physiotherapy, we hear the same sort of question a lot.

“What actually is the difference between a physiotherapist and an exercise physiologist?”

“Should I be booking an appointment with an exercise physiologist or a physiotherapist?”

“I’ve injured my ankle playing netball and I didn’t know if I should see my physiotherapist or an exercise physiologist.”

So, for this month’s blog we are going to share information with you explaining the key similarities and differences between physiotherapists and exercise physiologists.

Similarities between physiotherapists and exercise physiologists

One of the reasons that this question can be so confusing is that both physiotherapists and exercise physiologists work within a broad scope of practise and there is a lot of crossover.

Both professions require 4-year undergraduate degrees, or a 3-year degree if they wish to further their studies with a graduate diploma (for exercise physiology) or a master’s degree and/or doctorate (physiotherapy).

Both physiotherapists and exercise physiologists are recognised by Medicare, the TAC (Transport Accident Commission), WorkCover and private health funds, and both professions require yearly professional development to maintain up to date accreditation.

Putting it very simply (perhaps even oversimplifying it), an exercise physiologist will assess and manage your condition with exercise whereas a physiotherapist will assess, provide a diagnose and treat your condition through a variety of hands-on skills, education and exercise. Because of this, there are some instances where you will need just one of these services, while some injuries and conditions will require assistance from both.

According to Exercise & Sports Science Australia, who are the peak professional body and sole accrediting authority for exercise physiologists in Australia:

“Exercise physiology and physiotherapy are both recognised allied health professions. Exercise physiologists primarily treat patients using clinical exercise interventions as their main modality. There is also a strong focus on behavioural change and self-management concepts. Physiotherapists are health care professionals who assess, diagnose, treat and manage acute injury, disability and pain through physical.”

Unique aspects of physiotherapy

Physiotherapists work across all phases of injuries from acute, to sub-acute, to chronic. Early intervention is key to a shorter recovery and better client outcomes. The acute phase of an injury is often associated with pain, swelling, bruising and restriction in movement and function. This is a great time to check in with your physiotherapist for assessment and commencement of intervention.

Physiotherapists deliver soft tissue mobilisation through massage, dry needling, and ultrasounds, but also at times prescribe self-massage techniques. Physios are able to deliver an injury diagnosis and prognosis, while exercise physiologists usually receive this diagnosis and then deliver the rehabilitation prognosis.

Unique aspects of exercise physiology

Exercise physiologists deliver instruction and education on trigger point therapy and self-massage techniques, using equipment such as foam rollers and trigger point balls.

Exercise physiologists typically specialise in providing lifestyle education and lifestyle modification techniques to support individuals with a wide range of chronic health conditions (such as cancer recovery, diabetes, respiratory conditions, mental health conditions, and cardiac-related conditions) to promote improved health and wellness and decrease their risk of all-cause morbidity.

Exercise physiologists will work with you to consider the how and the why of your circumstances so that both can be addressed and help to prevent future recurrence.

Exercise physiologists can also work with you to develop individually tailored exercise plans to help you achieve your goals around losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight; or create a strength and conditioning program to take your fitness to the next level.

Do I need to see a physiotherapist or an exercise physiologist?

If you are unsure, the easiest way to work out if you need a physiotherapist or an exercise physiologist is to come into your local SportsCare and Physiotherapy clinic and discuss it with one of our welcoming staff members.

Every case is unique and should be assessed by a doctor or an allied health professional, but some reasons you might need to see a physiotherapist are:

  • You are experiencing a pain that is new, unexpected, or not yet diagnosed.
  • You have an acute sports injury or have recently undergone orthopaedic surgery.
  • You require hands-on treatment such as dry needling, mobilisation, or massage.

During a typical physiotherapy consultation, your physio will undertake some of the following activities:

  • Work with you to create a thorough patient history, followed by an assessment and diagnosis of your condition.
  • Discussion around your expectations and desired outcome goals.
  • Discussion and education of condition and how it may impact an individual as well as treatment options.
  • Work with you to develop a clear treatment and prevention plan.
  • Your physio may undertake manual therapy techniques such as massage to provide symptomatic relief.
  • Your physio may prescribe you some home exercises and other interventions and educate you on how to do them properly.
  • Your physio will often be communicating with GPs or other specialists to ensure an effective collaborative approach is undertaken for the management of your injury or pain.

Reasons you might need to see one of our exercise physiologists include:

  • You are recovering from an injury or have been dealing with a prior injury that you do not want to exacerbate.
  • You have a chronic health condition such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, asthma, or osteoporosis, all of which can be improved with an effective exercise plan.
  • You have goals around losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight and you want help creating an effective exercise plan.
  • You’re seeking an individually tailored and prescribed exercise program that meets your health and wellness needs.

A typical session with an exercise physiologist could include a combination of the following activities:

  • An introduction, initial assessment, and thorough check of your history to define your current state of health and your exercise background.
  • A physical assessment to determine objective measures such as your blood pressure, heart rate, body composition, exercise tolerance and muscle strength.
  • Provide education on how specific exercises can help and how it relates to your injury or condition.
  • Help you to complete an individualised and targeted exercise session in the clinic.
  • Provide education on strategies you can use to achieve your exercise, health, and wellness goals. This can include motivational techniques, exercise and lifestyle planning and ongoing support.
  • Creation of a clear and individually tailored exercise program with clearly defined goals and milestone targets.

How the SportsCare and Physiotherapy team can help you

The best way to find out how we can help you is by contacting your local SportsCare and Physiotherapy clinic and telling us about your unique situation. We have a team of allied health professionals, including physiotherapists with various areas of specialty, exercise physiologists, and other professionals.

Using the example of an ankle sprain, this is how your treatment journey may look:

Acute Phase:

Immediately after your injury, a physiotherapist can diagnose the injury, provide manual therapy, assist in controlling the inflammation of the joint and pain, and if needed they may also provide temporary mobility aids such as a splint or crutch.

Recovery Phase:

In the next phase of your rehabilitation (in the case of an ankle sprain this could be around 3-4 weeks after your injury occurs), an exercise physiologist could get involved in your treatment. This treatment could look like reintroducing gentle exercises to regain a typical range of motion and restore joint mobility, usually involving mobilisation of soft tissue structures. The main benefit of having an exercise physiologist prescribing these activities is that they will all be specifically designed to achieve the individual’s rehabilitation goals and help them get back up and doing their daily activities as quickly as possible.

In summary, physiotherapists and exercise physiologists have similar jobs with some aspects that overlap, but both have their unique benefits. While they both work with you to aid the treatment of a range of different conditions and aspects of health and wellbeing, you will typically seek treatment from a physiotherapist if you are in the acute phase of your injury. Once your rehabilitation process is further along, then seeking treatment from an exercise physiologist to help you create a specific and individually tailored exercise program can be extremely beneficial.

If you want to book an appointment with one of our qualified physiotherapists or exercise physiologists, you can get in touch with the SportsCare and Physiotherapy team on 1800 001 500 or visit our website.

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